The return of Xenophon

Robin Waterfield argues for the philosophical credentials of a neglected chronicler of Socrates

Xenophon, short man on the right

Xenophon, short man on the right

Xenophon the philosopher? But wasn’t he a historian – the man who wrote the famous and thrilling campaign narrative The Expedition of Cyrus (in Greek, The Anabasis) and who completed Thucydides’ unfinished history of the Peloponnesian War? This is true, but there was a lot more to him besides; he was a restless man, both in his life and in the range of his writings. In his long life (from roughly 430 to shortly after 355), apart from a number of years campaigning abroad as a mercenary commander, he wrote technical treatises on Athenian economics and on the Spartan constitution, on hunting, horse-breeding, cavalry command and estate-management; he wrote a short dialogue on tyranny and a eulogistic biography of King Agesilaus of Sparta; he wrote a long, largely fictional and irrepressibly rose-tinted account of the upbringing of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian empire; and, as a disciple of Socrates, he wrote a version of the defence speech Socrates delivered at his trial in 399, and a lively account of a symposium at which Socrates was present, and four volumes of memoirs of Socrates.

Xenophon, however, is the poor relation of classical Athenian philosophy, consistently dismissed to the margins. Although Socrates was his mentor no less than he was Plato’s, Plato’s dialogues are mined for Socratic thought and methods, while Xenophon’s are largely dismissed. Whole books on Socrates are written with scarcely a mention of Xenophon. After Socrates’ death, quite a few of his followers or self-professed followers wrote philosophical works with their master as the protagonist; none of this sub-genre of prose literature has survived, except the Socratic works of Plato and those of Xenophon. When time has been so mean, can we afford to ignore half of our evidence for the western world’s first and greatest philosopher?

This dismissal of Xenophon seems to philosophers to be a matter of necessity, since they read Xenophon as banal and shallow, while Plato’s Socrates is enigmatic, multifaceted and profound, and continues to stimulate and bewilder readers. From a historical perspective, however, the marginalization of Xenophon comes across as sheer prejudice. The prejudice shows clearly in an influential assertion by Bertrand Russell – influential because his A History of Western Philosophy, in which the assertion appears, sold well for decades. Russell described Xenophon as “a military man, not very liberally endowed with brains, and on the whole conventional in his outlook”. Now, historians of philosophy before Russell had been inclined to regard Xenophon as a good source for Socratic thought – as a better source, in fact, than Plato, on the grounds that Plato’s very brilliance made it far more likely that he had his own agenda in writing. So Russell went on: “There has been a tendency to think that everything Xenophon said must be true, because he had not the wits to think of anything untrue. This is a very invalid line of argument. A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says is never accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something that he can understand. I would rather be reported by my bitterest enemy among philosophers than by a friend innocent of philosophy.”

In actual fact, the only rational conclusion to draw is that neither Plato nor Xenophon can tell us much about the historical Socrates. Neither of them (and the same goes for all the other Socratics whose works are lost) was writing biography, but dramatized fiction, based loosely on their mentor’s practices. At best, what they wrote was what Socrates might have said, had he been involved in such-and-such a conversation with so-and-so on this or that topic. More likely, they simply used Socrates as a mouthpiece for their own ideas. For instance, we happen to know what four Socratics (Plato, Xenophon, Aristippus and Antisthenes) said about the role of pleasure in life. There is hardly any overlap at all: either pleasure is the goal of life (Plato, in Protagoras), or it is to be avoided like the plague (Antisthenes), or only certain pleasures are acceptable (Xenophon, Aristippus). Yet all four claimed to be good Socratics, and in the two certain cases (Plato, Xenophon) they attributed their views to Socrates. Only when the ground has been cleared of prejudice can we read Plato’s works as reflecting Socrates’ influence on the individual Plato, and Xenophon’s works as reflecting the same influence on Xenophon, with his individual interests and personality.

What philosophy, then, do we find in Xenophon? In whatever genre he was writing, a moral vein makes its presence strongly felt. In fact, it is precisely Xenophon’s exclusive focus on ethics that gives his works their somewhat humdrum appearance: he is not interested in (indeed, he has his Socrates dismiss) flights of speculative fancy in science, metaphysics, epistemology, and so on, and he consistently displays Socrates (and his other heroes) in pretty much the same situations – that is, interacting with friends, acquaintances and subordinates, since interpersonal relationships constitute the field of practical ethics. This exclusive focus is the source of the Russellian prejudice.

But though we may not get fireworks, we get the mature thoughts of a man who had reflected on his Socratic heritage. His moral ideal is summed up in the kaloskagathos, a compound word probably invented in the second half of the fifth century by Athenian aristocrats to summarize their own distinctive features: they were “the beautiful and the good”, beautiful for their honed bodies, and good not just morally but also because they were, or were claiming to be, good at administering the city. A superficial reading of Xenophon, then, has his ideal man (along with almost everyone of his time, he largely ignored women) being no more than an Athenian gentleman, a member of the ruling class. This glib dismissal needs to be remedied.

A survey of the many, scattered descriptions Xenophon gives of his heroes readily shows us the kinds of qualities a Xenophontic kaloskagathos should have. He should be well educated; he should have the ability to make other good men his friends and to get on with people; he should be able to function within the Greek norm of aristocratic reciprocity, which is doing good to one’s friends and harming one’s enemies; he should be able to manage his estate and, if necessary, his country; he should have the ability to lead others, to gain their willing obedience by the example of his superiority and by making it plain that he knows how to guide matters for the best, in both military and political circumstances; he should have the traditional virtues, such as wisdom, justice, self-control, courage and piety; and he should have freedom, or self-sufficiency, gained as a result of the ability to control his desires.

Thoughtful reflection on morality with a practical and prudential emphasis: this is Xenophon’s signature. Self-discipline is important not just for itself, but because it enables a person not to be distracted by his appetites from doing his duty. Education is desirable provided it stops short of useless theoretical studies and idle speculation. You do good to your friends so that they stick by you, defend you from your enemies and otherwise repay you. The purposes of the management of an estate are to create wealth and to train a man to administer his country. Hunting too is ideal training for future defenders of the state.

But these external and prudential aims should not distract us from the internal emphasis that underlies them. All his descriptions of the kaloskagathos make it clear that there is one quality above all that is essential, and this is self-discipline. This is the foundation of true goodness and the sine qua non of any other moral virtue. You cannot manage your estate, let alone your country, if you cannot manage yourself; you cannot do good to your friends unless you can restrain your appetites; you cannot be a true leader, in control of others, unless you are in control of yourself. Self-sufficiency (inseparable in Xenophon’s mind from self-discipline, as the product from the cause) is also the foundation of happiness: I am more likely to be happy if I adapt my needs until they are more easy to satisfy. This is a truly Socratic conception of how to attain happiness, reflected also (though more dimly) in Plato’s works.

One of the difficulties with appreciating the profundity of this notion is that, once stated, it is strikingly obvious. Of course we would all be happier if we did not succumb to illusory desires, did not want more than we could have. This obviousness disguises the fact that the theory is incredibly difficult to put into practice, and indeed lies at the heart of lifelong practices such as Buddhism. Consider, then, what kind of person Xenophon is portraying Socrates (and, to a lesser extent, his other heroes) as being. He is someone who can consistently live in this adaptive fashion, free from temptation and in full control of his desires, wishes and expectations. It is no wonder that it was Xenophon’s Socrates who became the model sage for the Stoics. To deny that Xenophon is a philosopher is to cast doubt on the philosophical acuity of the Stoics, as no one nowadays would.

Xenophon may have upheld traditional values, but he did not do so in an unthinking way (and neither did Plato’s Socrates). Xenophon had come to the conclusion that external activity requires certain internal conditions if it is to be genuine morality, rather than merely imitative action. And so the kaloskagathos is self-sufficient – free rather than in servile dependence on others for his livelihood, self-esteem, actions, feelings and opinions. If Xenophon had merely been superficially putting his weight behind the traditional Greek virtues, as he is accused of doing by countless scholars, there would have been no need for him to stress self-sufficiency to this extent; it did not occupy this central a place in the life of a traditional Athenian gentleman, who, if asked whether he was free, would assume that the question referred to his social status rather than to any internal state, and spent much of his life pursuing honour – a goal which, as Aristotle pointed out, depends on others and therefore is far from the ideal of self-sufficiency. Xenophon learnt from Socrates, thought things through by himself, and tweaked the traditional conception of goodness.

Xenophon’s moral concerns to a certain extent informed even his historical works: he wrote what has been called “paradigmatic” or “exemplary” history, focusing especially on the actions of past leaders, who were to stand as paradigms for current and future leaders. He structured his presentation of events and people (and even occasionally suppressed events, or selected among alternate versions) in order to communicate various subtextual messages, such as the inevitable downfall, engineered by the gods, of arrogant leaders. Philosophy for Xenophon, as for many of his contemporaries, was not an academic exercise, but a practical, if arduous, way to try to attain moral virtue as a steady state. Since examples of virtuous people can help an aspirant, even history-writing could serve a moral purpose. Whatever he was writing, Xenophon always had a moral and educational agenda; ancient authors were right to classify him more commonly as a philosopher than as a historian, and modern authors should no longer ignore him as a source for fourth-century philosophical thinking. He is a quiet thinker; he doesn’t trumpet his views, but a great deal of careful thought underpins his work.

Robin Waterfield is the author of Xenophon’s Retreat: Greece, Persia and the End of the Golden Age, publisher by Faber and Faber.

  1. An interesting reading of Xenophon as a representative of “fourth-century philosophical thinking”, but this in itself is an exercise in cultural history than an excursion into philosophy proper, nor does it make of Xenophon any more of a philosopher than would an examination of, say, Tony Blair that finds that “a great deal of careful thought underpins his work” make of Tony Blair a philosopher in the proper sense.

    From another angle, to speak of “what four Socratics … said about the role of pleasure in life” and then give “pleasure is the goal of life” as what Plato had to say on the subject in the Protagoras is surely something that makes Plato shudder in his grave. In the Protagoras Plato’s Socrates proceeds from the common assumption that “pleasure is the goal of life” to show that on that hypothesis akrasia (being overcome by desire against our better judgement) turns out to be nothing but ignorance.

    D. R. Khashaba

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